Monday, August 20, 2012

"... I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell..." *

I like Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty, and have for some time. When the song "Unwell" first came out, it was before I was diagnosed with bipolar, yet it resonated with me somehow. Probably because my whole life, especially in school, people would always talk about how "crazy" I was. Generally, they meant it in a funny, teasing, laughing-with-me-not-at-me kind of way, because let's face it, folks: I have an AMAZING sense of humor, if not sometimes just a little wicked and warped.

Still, I also knew what my friends and peers did not know: that sometimes, there were things going on inside of me that I had absolutely no control over. While part of me considered that these odd thoughts, random visions, and creepy sensations possibly normal, I also had some sense that maybe they weren't. Maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to tell anyone some of the stuff that happened inside my head.

For instance, before I was three years old, I remember waking up and feeling like monkeys - really evil monkeys - were sitting on my back, daring me to turn around and look them in the face. I could never breathe when that happened. I would lay really still and wait them out. Because I was afraid of what they would do to me if I ever told anyone about them, I never did. Not until I was an adult and they had been gone for decades.

When I was in grade school, I would get these odd ideas that if I did something in a certain way, or thought wrong thoughts, then something awful would happen. I can remember having obsessive thoughts (not knowing what they were at the time) that kept repeating themselves in my head, scaring me, and making me sure I was going to hell for having them. I also had a special litany of catastrophes I had to pray against every night, being very specific, so that God would protect us all. If I didn't remember to do it, I knew if anything happened, it would be my fault. That went on for several years, probably until I was 9 or 10, when I finally took the chance that maybe God could handle things and knew what He was doing better than I did. I quit praying that particular prayer...and nothing happened. Our house didn't burn down. We weren't robbed. No one died. I'd had no power or magic that was keeping it from happening; it just didn't happen.

In junior high was the first time I had actual "outside my head" hallucinations. It was always an image of the hooded figure of Death, complete with his sickle for reaping souls. It was bad enough when I saw it at home at night in my room, but when I started seeing it while playing softball, I remember being really freaked out. At the same time, I started having what I know now were episodes of "depersonalization" - when my own voice sounded like it was coming from someone else, when other people sounded like they were talking to me from across a great chasm, and when time (the fact that it kept passing and passing and passing) became a threatening and awful thing to contemplate. I detested looking at clocks and watches, the ringing of bells to change classes, watching the sun follow its course through the day. It overwhelmed me. Again, I don't remember saying anything about this, though once my mom and I were talking and she did ask if I felt I needed to see a psychologist. I said no...because I didn't want to think I was insane, and back in 1975 that's all I knew about psychiatrists - they saw people that were really, truly insane.

In high school and college, I was having wild mood swings. Mom (and I'm sure everyone else) knew when my period was due because I'd get snappy and crabby. But I didn't let anyone know, when I would become so horribly depressed that I was mapping out a will in my head, that anything more than just typical teenage angst was going on. Because honestly, I didn't know that it wasn't just that, anyway. I would also have these tremendous bursts of energy, days and days when I could just go and go and go! I've always been a talker (ask the people that freaked when the 9-month-old in the shopping cart at the store would greet them in complete sentences), but I felt compelled to talk and would...faster and faster. I know now that is called "pressured speech". I would have these amazing ideas, start all kinds of projects and never finish them, blow any money I had on buying gifts for my friends just because I felt expansive and in love with the world. In college, in 1981, I remember feeling it was a kind of "frenetic peace" - and I wrote once that it felt like God was tagging me on the shoulder and saying, "Come on...let's go play!" Creative? Intelligent? Very likely manic.

I never did the hypersexual activity, I was too much of a prude. Drugs? Nope...I was terrified of them. I couldn't even take an aspirin correctly, or prescriptions without worrying they would kill me (can anyone say, "comorbid anxiety disorder"?); besides, no one ever offered me any. That's probably a good thing. I also never drank. Oddly though, when I would go into what I was calling a funk (now what I realize were depressive episodes), the first thing I would think about to deal with things was "Maybe I should get drunk..." Yeah. Didn't make sense at all...but frequently nothing did.

I did well at work. I did well at school. I had always done well in school, especially in the "abstract classes" like English, composition, literature, art, etc. But wow, my head could give me fits at times.

One other thing, depressed or hyper, or even just on "even keel" - a condition that was never comfortable to me for some reason - I have almost always had voices in my head. I've explained it as like having a TV on or a radio talk show going all the time. The voices don't comment on me or talk to me, except for rare instances when my bipolar is not under control and twice on medication that caused auditory hallucinations as a side effect. Instead, it's like I'm eavesdropping on other people's conversations. Sometimes, I get a visual in my head of who the people are that are talking. It just lasts a second or two, then the "station" will change and it might be someone else talking, another show to listen to, or maybe nothing at all.

I have been through episodes of major depression - once after miscarrying twins, once when my husband at the time had a psychotic break and we found out he was schizophrenic. I was hospitalized for depression the first time after his diagnosis and after having been under extreme stress and major life changes for three years straight. Later, I was being treated for depression and had been doing well enough, but as the medication stopped working, I became depressed and started having visual hallucinations, thoughts of harming self, wanting to stop existing, etc. I wasn't sad, though, that was the thing. I just felt hopeless and worthless. I wanted to shake out of it, but I couldn't. I remember telling my family doctor, who I had worked for at one time, that "I should be stronger than this!" He just looked at me and asked me, "Why?" That's when we discussed depression as a condition and not just a reaction to something sad that has occurred.

We continued to treat the depression with different medications. I then took a job at a small newspaper, as the news reporter and photographer. I loved it! But there were long hours, lots of deadlines (of course!), and so many things to do at all times of the day or night that needed to be covered. For some reason, all those years of anxiety - reaching back into childhood - came to a head and I started having panic attacks.

I didn't realize at first that they were panic attacks. I was in the ER many times for outrageously high blood pressure, severe waves of heat spreading through my body, then massive cold waves, electrical tastes in my mouth, and a feeling that I was going to die at any second. It took a while to be diagnosed (finally!) with the panic and anxiety disorders, but after getting some counseling and medical intervention, as well as learning coping techniques over the course of several years, the panic attacks decreased and I rarely have them anymore.

After that diagnosis, and while still working at the paper and on anti-depressants, some really weird things began happening. I started acting less and less like myself. Dropped out of church. Stepped away from many of my acquaintances. Became involved in online friendships with men that were really pretty inappropriate (several guys were married, one was probably a stalker, and I married the one that had just gotten out of prison and had anger issues). I did wild things in the course of that long manic phase: slept in my husband's truck in the church parking lot because I was angry and didn't want to go home; covered my upstairs apartment patio so no one could see me, and slept naked under a full moon just to see what it felt like; mooned someone while I was merely a block away from the police station. Not at all the behavior of a professional woman. Not at all the behavior of anyone I'd ever been before. We won't even talk about the stupid, stupid things I did before I married my Internet boyfriend. How I did not see that I was behaving bizarrely, I don't know. My mom saw it. My daughter saw it. Friends saw it. But even when they pointed it out, I didn't get it.

Eventually, I ended up in the hospital as I crashed from the long manic episode. I was depressed. I was seeing horrible images in my head - very destructive ones. I was afraid I was going to hurt myself and I didn't want to. And we always treated the depression every time I went to the hospital - which, in the first year, was four times. It wasn't until the fourth time that my doctor realized I was bipolar, and looking back on all the symptoms from when I was a little kid, I probably always have been. Once we started treating the bipolar (adding mood stabilizers or anti-psychotics to the anti-depressants), things gradually got better. Gradually, though, because I ended up separating from and divorcing my new husband - which was probably one of the best things I could have done for my mental health at the time.

In the past six years, while I have had some depressive episodes that have interfered with being able to work and function sometimes, I at least have not had to be hospitalized again. I have learned to recognize my symptoms for episodes and try to work with my doctor to handle things. I know to pull back from things that I can when stress starts triggering the overt symptoms like bad mental imagery or more voices. I've managed to go back to school online, hold an A average, and take classes every term but one (because of financial aid problems that term) for the past three years.

In spite of how my head can be sometimes, I'm still amazingly funny (albeit wicked and warped); I still have friends and family to communicate with and can usually function at work, though I only work very, very part-time. I'm writing again, which I couldn't do for several years after I left the paper - either because I was too hyper to really do so or because I was too depressed.

What I'm trying to say here is what Matchbox Twenty says, "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell." Some days are not great. But I'm still a functioning human being, capable of feeling deeply, dreaming big, and having fun with most other human beings, too. I have multiple interests and follow them as far as I can. I haven't "been off the deep end" in a very long time. And actually, even with all the weird stuff in my head all through childhood and my teenage years and adulthood, I still managed to graduate in the top 10% of my high school class, made friends along the way that I still cherish, and ended up with an amazing daughter who has a bright future in spite of what she went through with her parents.

If you are bipolar, have an anxiety disorder, know the depths of depression, regret some of your actions when you've been living larger than life - I can relate. But always know this: You're not crazy. You just may be a little unwell.

(The lyrics in this video are what resonate with me; the actual video just makes me bemused as I watch it. I know some people actually see things like this...I just never have...not in that way.)

"Unwell", lyrics by Rob Thomas



  2. Thanks! Following your blog now. Seems we have a lot in common.